Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Secret Life of Mammals

Image result for shrew


We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.


photo from BBC archives



PostHeaderIcon 60 Degrees North


A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

PostHeaderIcon The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.